Keeper Shelf: In the Distance There is Light by Harper Bliss

Squee from the Keeper Shelf is a feature wherein we share why we love the books we love, specifically the stories which are permanent residents of our Keeper shelves. Despite flaws, despite changes in age and perspective, despite the passage of time, we love particular books beyond reason, and the only thing better than re-reading them is telling other people about them. At length.

If you’d like to submit your reasons for loving and keeping a particular book for Squee from the Keeper Shelf, please email Sarah!

I’ve been a big fan of Harper Bliss’s lesbian romances for a long time, and age gap (or May/December) stories are like my catnip, so you can imagine my delight when I heard she was putting one out last year. I consumed In the Distance There is Light in a day and it consumed me, crawling under my skin and staying there. When I recently listened to the new audiobook edition and loved it even more, I knew I had to share it with all of you amazing readers.

It opens as Sophie watches her boyfriend’s casket being lowered into the ground. She’s surrounded by friends and family, and yet she doesn’t identify with anyone except Ian’s stepmother Dolores, who’d lost Ian’s mother a decade prior to cancer. Sophie is a walking wound, her soulmate taken way too soon in an accident, and she doesn’t even get the distinction of the title “widow” because they’d never married.

This is real. I’ll never see Ian again. Dolores will never see her son again. During my thirty years on this planet, I’ve only been to the funerals of people I vaguely cared about. Distant aunts and relatives I never got to know. I’d always thought the first big one, the first one to tear me apart at least a little bit, would be my granddad’s. But I’m burying my boyfriend instead. Well, my partner, I guess. Boyfriend sounds so juvenile, so inadequate for what he was to me.

Sophie can’t stay in the apartment she and Ian shared because it’s too painful. After staying with a friend for a few days and sleeping only thanks to a nightly dose of Ambien, she finds herself calling Dolores and going over for a visit. Except that visit turns into an overnight, and when neither of them can sleep on their own, they find themselves passing out in front of the TV in Dolores’s bed. And then one night turns into a month and then more, with Sophie sleeping (Ambien-free) next to Dolores, each woman trying to pull their shattered lives back together. Everything changes yet again the night that Sophie kisses Dolores, the women finding comfort in a way they never would have expected.

So yes, it’s a lesbian romance about a woman who finds love with her stepmother-in-law. And as I was describing the book to my husband (who brought it on himself by asking what I’d been listening to lately), I found myself saying “I know! It sounds like a total porn premise, but I swear it’s not salacious!” And seriously, nothing about this book will make anyone say “Ooh, this whole ‘banging her dead boyfriend’s mom’ thing is so hot!” That first kiss is Sophie grasping for a lifeline, not the result of a meet-cute and flirty banter, and it’s followed by understandably complicated feelings. Sophie and Dolores’s sexual relationship, especially in its early months, is about survival and doing exactly what’s necessary to make it through the day so they can get up the next morning and do it all over again.

More than just a romance, In the Distance There is Light is a study in grief. What happens when your life is ripped apart and you can’t sleep in your own bed, let alone even think about going to work? Because the book is told in the first person from Sophie’s perspective, we’re given unfiltered access to her feelings and the rawness is almost overwhelming at times. She watches as Dolores handles her own grief by throwing herself back into things at work, while Sophie ekes out the smallest of existences in Dolores’s home, journalling her feelings in a series of letters to Ian.

[…] fuck, Ian, there have been numerous times, more than I’d like to admit, that I wished I were religious, so that I could find comfort in my faith, and believe that you are up there somewhere watching me, but sadly, I don’t believe in any of these things. You’re as gone as you’ll ever be. I’m left behind. And, yes—and you won’t like this—I have been feeling mightily sorry for myself. But you know what? I’m allowed. Because I have nothing left. Not even a wedding ring. Yes, you heard that right. I’ve also been wishing we had married. Then at least I’d be your widow, a scandalously young one, but at least something in relation to you. Now, I’m just a woman whose partner died in a road accident so stupid it wasn’t even worth an article in a newspaper.

I love how Sophie doesn’t shy away from her grief. She doesn’t try to compartmentalize it. She just fully experiences the sadness or anger or numbness as it comes. She may marvel at Dolores’s strength as she resumes normal life, but I suspect it’s Sophie’s acceptance of the worst of her feelings that lets her support Dolores in the moments when grief tackles her out of nowhere.

I was a little nervous about listening to the audio version of In the Distance There is Light because I love this book so much. It was one of the best books I read last year and what if the narrator didn’t do it justice? Narrators make or break audiobooks, and I was so afraid of not liking this one. My fears totally unnecessary because Charlotte North knocked it out of the fucking park. From the very first second, she was Sophie. And listening to Sophie tell her story made it even easier for me to connect with her again and understand her path from that enveloping fog of grief to a manageable day-to-day life.

If you can buy into (or get over) the premise of this book, I can’t recommend it enough. And if you enjoy audiobooks, I especially think you should pick it up in that format. This is Harper Bliss’s best book and it’s well worth the time and money

In the Distance There is Light comes from Tara Scott’s Keeper ShelfIf you want to read her previous guest reviews on SBTB (and we highly recommend that you do), you can see them all here.

Tara reads a lot of lesbian romances. You can catch her regularly reviewing at The Lesbian Review and Curve Magazine and hear her talk about lesbian fiction (including romance) on her podcast Les Do Books. You can also hit her up for recommendations on Twitter (@taramdscott).

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In the Distance There Is Light by Harper Bliss

September 8, 2016

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